NEW ORLEANS – As a very relaxed Kobe Bryant(notes) went to check in with the Lakers up 19 points late, a frustrated Hornets fan screamed from close proximity, "Kobe, sit down!" The Los Angeles Lakers guard slowly turned his head and smiled. He won't be sitting down or relenting any time soon.
The Lakers got the easiest win of this gritty first-round series via a 98-80 rout of the Hornets in a deciding Game 6 on Thursday night. So, why didn't the Lakers play like this all along against New Orleans? With All-Star guard Chris Paul(notes) playing at his best, the New Orleans Hornets ended up posing a much greater threat to the reigning NBA champions than expected. But after taking the Hornets for granted, the Lakers can ill afford to not play at the top of their game with more formidable competition on the way in the Dallas Mavericks.
"I don't think they were focused or ornery," one NBA advance scout said. "It seems like their defense dropped a little bit. They're obviously a lot better than New Orleans. They pick it up when they want to, but they can't have that attitude throughout the playoffs. When their two bigs [Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes)] play at a high level, no one can beat them."
Said another: "They are pacing themselves. They have been there so many times that they are more focused on the final goal, not necessarily the steps to get there."
The seemingly bored Lakers entered the first round with losses in five of their final seven regular-season games and needed an overtime win against the struggling Sacramento Kings in the finale to solidify the West's second seed. The Hornets appeared to be easy prey in the first round – the Lakers swept them in four regular-season games and they were without injured All-Star forward David West(notes). Coming off knee surgery a season ago, Paul didn't enter the series as his All-Star self either, averaging a career-low 15.9 points and 9.8 assists on the season.
Paul and the Hornets, however, showed the Lakers from the start that it wouldn't be a cakewalk series as he had 33 points and 14 assists in a stunning 109-100 road victory in Game 1. Paul also put together a memorable triple-double performance on Easter with 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds in a Game 4 win to tie up the series. With Paul out of gas in Game 6, the Lakers were able to put the Hornets' season to rest easily with their talent and size.
Gasol said the Lakers probably underestimated the Hornets at first.
"We took them for granted because we beat them four times in the regular season," Gasol said. "We didn't come out with the attention necessary, the focus necessary to beat a team that is focused with nothing to lose. So that's what happened. It was our fault in that first game and we paid the price. It was also good for our team to go through the six games and get better as we went along.
"You have to start off a series really aggressively. You can't come off flat. We have to get ourselves physically and mentally ready for it."
Gasol played a key role in making the series more difficult.
The 7-footer averaged 22.3 points and 12.8 boards in four games against the Hornets in the regular season and seemed to be at an advantage with 6-foot-9 forward Carl Landry(notes) defending him. Gasol, however, was surprisingly bad in the first two games, averaging eight points and 6.5 rebounds. The All-Star picked it up the last four games, averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.
"It was not great," Gasol said about his series play. "But I was happy I was able to bounce back after a slow start. I felt my energy and my contribution was a lot better and a lot more as it's supposed to be."
Bryant said one of the best things the Lakers learned was defending their "biggest grievance" in the pick and roll. Derek Fisher(notes) said the Hornets series helped them get their rhythm going. As for Lamar Odom(notes), he said the biggest thing the Lakers learned was to "play hard."
"If we play hard every game it will take care of itself," Odom said.
So in what games did the Lakers not play hard?
"I'm not going to say," Odom said. "I just feel like we can't let a team get all the loose balls, block our shots, out-rebound us, the hustle points. When we establish ourselves we are first to the ball, play hard and dive on the floor, we give teams a hard time."
The Lakers will get three days off before starting their second-round series against the Mavericks. No one will utilize that break better than Bryant, who suffered a left foot injury in Game 4 that he says is still sore. But Bryant did add that the biggest difference between this Lakers team and last year's version is that it is much healthier.
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The defending champs were 2-1 against the Mavericks during the regular season, with a 96-91 victory in the last meeting on March 12. While the Mavs don't have anyone to stop Bryant, they have plenty of size with All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki(notes) and centers Tyson Chandler(notes) and Brendan Haywood(notes).
"They are big and Nowitzki is a 7-footer and so is their center, Tyson Chandler," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Obviously, Haywood is a 7-footer. So they have size, but these [Lakers] have proven their dominance by their size. This is the reason why we are champions."
With a Hall of Fame coach, big-time scorer, size, experience, talent and depth, the Lakers could be impossible to beat and should remain champs if they play to their potential. But will they consistently play at that level? When it's all said and done, the Lakers' biggest test for a three-peat could end up being the Lakers themselves.
"We got to start off with some confidence," Gasol said. "We got to come out differently than we did against the Hornets."
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